Paying It Forward
How three artists left living legacies to Silver City.
By Sunny McFarren
Silver City, a town of 10,000 people nestled in the foothills of Southwest New Mexico, is known for its four gentle seasons, its beautiful scenery, its small-town commitment to caring for its own, and its artists.
At least three of those artists have repaid the town with living legacies:
- Harry Benjamin, a quiet man known for his puckish sense of humor and his Southwestern landscapes, willed everything in his home/studio/gallery to the Expressive Arts Department at Western New Mexico University. Proceeds from an auction of hundreds of these items on Feb. 22 that raised some $40,000 will go toward scholarships for students in the Expressive Arts Department at Western New Mexico University. In addition, money resulting from the sale of his downtown studio building itself and its lush garden will be used to support a large number of future projects planned by the Silver City Museum, where he once served as the first curator.
- Lois Duffy, a 77-year-old artist well-known for her realistic (warts and all) larger-than-life portraits, turned a quarter-block of totally run-down buildings into colorful art studios, and those studios have brought new artists to town while simultaneously attracting tourists.
- Diana Ingalls Leyba, an energetic artist who works in mixed-media acrylic (her painting, "Spirit Vessel II," adorns this issue's cover) while running the town's only art supply store with her husband Bob Leyba, has somehow found time in the last 10 years to help Silver City's youth complete more than 40 ambitious art murals that perk up and beautify Silver City and several surrounding communities.
Harry Benjamin was, in many ways, the nucleus and catalyst for the growth of Silver City's artists' community. He was a hometown boy, born in Silver City in 1945 and raised in nearby Bayard. He briefly attended art school in Los Angeles, but homesickness brought him back to Silver City, where he obtained an art degree at Western New Mexico University. He then became involved with efforts to open a museum in a historic house being vacated by the Silver City Fire Department. When that vision became a reality, Benjamin was named the Silver City Museum's first curator.
Inside Harry Benjamin’s What’s a Pot? Shop
studio/home in its heyday,
In recompense for his work, he was given a one-room apartment above the museum and a very small budget for running the museum. He became known for stretching his bare-bones budget to create compelling museum exhibit backdrops with such materials as pine needles, weathered wood, adobe fragments and old window frames.
"Harry led a fairly frugal lifestyle, but one rich in experiences, friendships and the joy of creativity," says Susan Berry, who worked with him at the museum and later served as its director for many years.
In 1982, Benjamin opened his "What's a Pot?" shop on Yankie Street and became a full-time artist. "He was enormously productive," notes Berry. "I think he literally produced tens of thousands of ceramic pots over the years, featuring everything from mountain scenery to neo-Mimbreños designs. But he eventually became best known for his acrylic paintings of Southwestern landscapes."
Next to his shop and studio, Benjamin created an almost tropical-looking garden on what had been an asphalt landscape. Fruit trees, flowers, herbs and succulents abounded, centered around a fish pond with two pet frogs he named Diana and Bob.
Benjamin set the tone of collaboration among artists in Silver City. He encouraged them and helped them find galleries to represent their art. When downtown Silver City was named one of the first two Historic Art and Cultural Districts in New Mexico, it was noted the award was received in large part because collaboration among the arts had obviously become a Silver City way of life.
A quiet, unassuming, laconic man who usually dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, Benjamin was at first embarrassed, and then touched, when his friends got together and nominated him, successfully, to receive the New Mexico Governor's Excellence in the Arts Award.
Stories about Benjamin's puckish sense of humor abound:
- One time he had a friend look at the new zucchini plants he had coming up in his garden. A few days later he called and asked her to come look at his garden again; he said a mutual friend of theirs had performed a pagan ritual in his garden and the results were amazing. When she arrived he again showed her his zucchini plants — this time resplendent with the full-grown zucchini Benjamin had just purchased at a local grocery store and placed in the garden.
- Another time, he painted a large, mesmerizing painting of a field of petroglyphs inscribed on rocks. Only if you looked closely did you see that one of the stones in the background had a contemporary cartoon figure painted on it.
- When someone, looking at one of his detailed landscapes, would laughingly ask Benjamin how many junipers were in it, he would give a dead-pan reply of "729" — or whatever other number came to him at that moment.
- And nowhere was his reverence for the ridiculous more apparent than in some of the artifacts on his studio walls: He had everything from a PeeWee Herman toy in a cabinet that played "Send in the Clowns" when you opened the door, to a lamp and phone disguised as a mallard duck, to two trophies for "Best Male Chicken." Friends delighted in bringing him these "treasures" and watching him find a place for them on his walls.
A perfectionist who sometimes felt one of his paintings was not quite finished, even though everyone else felt it was, Benjamin would often quip, "I will sell no art before its time."
Benjamin generously donated pieces of his art to places like the local hospital and to auctions held to benefit various non-profits. Other artists have since followed suit.
Over the years Benjamin expressed particular gratitude to the Expressive Arts Department at WMNU, where his mentor Cecil Howard not only provided encouragement for his students, but also inspired them by bringing well-known artists from around the country to share their skills. So it came as no surprise after Benjamin passed away in 2013, at the age of 67, that his will left everything in his studio and gallery to provide art scholarships for WNMU students.
Nor was it a surprise when Benjamin left his studio/gallery/home/garden to the Silver City Museum, which is searching for an established artist to relocate in Silver City in the former "What's a Pot?" shop. Proceeds from the eventual sale of the property will be used for a variety of future museum projects.
Lois Duffy has the energy and enthusiasm of a woman half her age. Larger-than-life paintings of people like T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost and Aldo Leopold line her studio wall — and they are very realistic paintings. "You don't really want me to do your portrait if you want it to be flattering," she says. "That's why I mostly paint dead people."
Lois Duffy with her self-portrait.
Interspersed with those portraits in her studio are lively, colorful downtown scenes of Silver City. These downtown scenes, capturing the look and feel of her favorite small town, are one of her legacies to Silver City. Further showing her versatility are some of her more recent works with a surreal bent; they are often built around New Mexico landscapes or Indians or Mexican themes like the "Day of the Dead."
Born on Long Island, Duffy spent most of her early adult life in western Massachusetts, where she married and had four children, until "well, to tell the truth, I just couldn't take the winters anymore" and she moved to Florida. "While the weather there was a definite improvement, the artists were very competitive, everyone seemed to look the same, and art was seen as more of a hobby or decoration rather than a real profession."
Duffy moved to Silver City in 1997 and was part of a cadre of nine artists who have since attracted more artists to town and put Silver City on the map. She says, "Artists in New Mexico are serious about their art, and there is something magical about living here. The landscapes inspire you. And the light is wonderful."